Teaching Weakness: The Indulgent Logic of Mutual Judge Preferences by Stephen Babb

Mutual judge preferences (MJP) have rapidly become an oddly unquestioned convention on the LD national circuit. From the perspectives of current debaters, this is more than  understandable. As long as the rules are what they are, what a deal!
The more difficult question falls upon educators in the activity: coaches, tournament directors, committee members, judges and the like. Should MJP be as irreproachable as it appears? Should it remain the dominant norm at “circuit” tournaments?

The best possible world probably wouldn’t reject MJP altogether, but nor would it accept the policy as a widespread and prevailing norm.

It should go without saying that MJP has had unconscionable consequences for communication skills. Some will dismiss this cost in some presumptuous belief than many students will never really need to master public speaking. Even when conceding the importance of communication skills, others will maintain that the advantages of rapid critical thinking and intricate strategy are net beneficial. The problem with using this logic in defense of MJP is that developing these skills alongside a wide range of communicative skills needn’t be a choice. In a world without MJP, the pursuit of the two skill sets isn’t mutually exclusive (in short, perm—do both!).

For those clinging to the belief that communication is more important for some students than others, the question remains: who should be making this choice for a student with many decades to come (and potentially many careers)? Why should coaches, in particular, be in a position to discourage debate styles that could very well be exponentially more valuable to a student than soon-forgotten trophies and bragging rights? Unless a coach is concerned exclusively with his or her own personal scorecard, he or she should insist that a team commit itself to mastering a wide range of deliveries, styles and techniques. (To be sure, there are competitive reasons to do so even in a world with MJP, but that’s another discussion altogether.)

To be clear, the skills at stake go far beyond “persuasion” (especially in the myopic sense typically associated with the term)—this is fundamentally a question of caring about one’s audience and doing that which is minimally necessary to convey arguments to that audience. That isn’t asking for a lot. If slowing down, enunciating, shifting one’s lexicon, or modifying an argumentative strategy is too much to ask of a given debater (or coach), there’s a compelling case to be made that this is simply the wrong activity for said participant.

Beyond any pedagogical disservice, this indulgent disposition encourages students to turn inward and care about all the wrong things. If a student’s ultimate aim is to simply “be correct” and receive some acknowledgement, why debate? The MJP culture’s message is backwards, yet simple: Keep doing what you’re doing, and if it doesn’t work, that’s someone else’s fault.

Of course, we’d all love to believe this, but we do so at great peril. How many university courses allow you to only take classes from professors you find amenable to your learning style? How many careers afford you something along the lines of a “mutual boss preference”? Fortunately, the vast majority of debaters are smart enough to know that the bubble to which they currently belong hardly resembles any other community. That doesn’t change the fact that discouraging various forms of adaptation short-changes students of a valuable opportunity to practice and perfect coping skills. Some surely don’t need the additional help. Others most certainly do.

Even if one denies the communicative virtues of debate, spurning adaptation also diminishes the argumentative and analytical skills we should wish to inculcate in our students. Teams use MJP to shield themselves from any rigorous expectations for strategic coherence and sound argumentation. It is no longer a mechanism designed to match similar paradigmatic opinion so much as it is an immunization against opinion itself. MJP has become a sweeping preference for critical passivity, an implicit suggestion that the judge who judges best also judges the least.

The paradigmatic tensions dividing our community increasingly fall along argumentative lines. Whereas the historic contrast between “old school” and “progressive” debate spoke to stylistic preferences, tolerance for jargon and other methodological considerations, today’s most pressing antagonisms reflect deep fissures in our beliefs about arguments themselves. Indeed, there appears to be little shared understanding as to the constitutive elements of arguments in the first place, much less how we make those arguments.

Only the most nihilistic “educator” can accept this as a desirable state of affairs. Students are free and clear to read card fragments, poorly explained claims and otherwise dubious positions with every confidence that their preferred critics will consistently abdicate their pedagogical responsibilities. A tolerance for gamesmanship has translated into a zealous commitment to nonsense.

On the one hand, this had produced an exclusionary and incestuous community that calculates a judge’s “legitimacy” on account of his or her willingness to accept a “wink, wink” anything goes approach. Even a first-order commitment to academic integrity can earn judges a reputation for antiquated stubbornness or—worse yet—”intervention.” For an ostensibly progressive academic niche keen on including different opinions, in practice we marginalize and trivialize even the most modest educational demands. MJP has facilitated this exclusion and provided a guise of legitimacy to teams who would rationalize all manner of shenanigans by dismissing alternative paradigms. The more inclusive alternative requires that tournaments simply ask debaters to do what they will have to do for the rest of their lives: engage opposing points of view.

This abdication of solidarity doubles as a mockery of argumentative learning itself. Even as we teach debaters to avoid clash by any means necessary (spikes, ludicrous interpretations, tiny plans, generic off-case argumentation, etc.), we’ve also encouraged them to avoid judges who disagree. It’s comically absurd that an activity called “debate” should so readily accommodate homogeneity at every turn.

There are also any number of concrete harms. Students can spend four years in the activity without ever stepping outside their wheelhouses. Debaters get away with running the same kinds of positions, winning via the same kinds of tricks and reading the same field of literature without so much as experimenting with alternative options. By any pedagogical metric, this is a disservice of epic proportions.

It sometimes feels as though this opinion is an anomaly, a lost cause in a world with its mind already made up.

I’m not so sure.

With the pressures placed upon coaches by their students and one another alike, speaking out about these things isn’t always easy. Nobody wants to be—for lack of a better term—the party pooper. But, for those charged with building a community that is both inclusive and educational, there are things that matter more than popularity.

  • As a judge myself- I don't like it. In the real, real world, esp if you're going to do law and then do any trial or advocacy work, or even seek VC capital for your next great idea, you rarely get to choose your "judge" (audience). [And I don't agree with Rebar's comment about Corp's – in the Corporate world today, re-orgs are so common that you almost never get to you "choose your boss." Combined with the current wonderful state of job creation in our country at this time, you will be stuck sometimes with someone you never imagined..]When our kids were little we used to say, "You get what you get and you don't regret…" This is more akin, in my experience, to the 'real world' – or for the current LDers- the 'real real world": post HS LD (heavens!) and college. IMHO, a good debater, a smart debater, is a "man(woman) for all seasons" in that they not only *ask* their judge pertinent questions before the round begins but also observe their judge as they make their arguments to see what's hitting and what isn't.If you don't know your judge, ask questions before the round begins. They should be specific, not just "what's your paradigm" (there's a Wiki for that..& it's like asking someone you're interested in "what's your major" – doesn't usually lead to many dates xD). If your judge tells you he/she isn't that great on theory- don't spend 25 minutes on theory spikes even if you think you have the best rationale since the Louisiana Purchase! Judge doesnt like K's & CP's- then stay away from them. You may be right- but the Judge has your ballot.If you know your Judge because you pref'ed him or her- I'd still suggest asking open questions as way of making sure your Judge is whom you remember he/she is. Think you know your Judge? I give you Judge John Paul Stephens of the US Supreme Court…Finally, reading your judge during the round is, again IMHO, almost as important as the types of arguments you're making. This is esp true of outrounds where you have to be looking for at least two votes (and preferably three). Stylistically flexible debaters can connect w/their judges and thefore get their arguments a better 'hearing', if you will, if they observe the Judge during the round. This is another great reason to get your head out of your laptop lol and visually connect with your judge. You may be the greatest spreader of all time, but if your judge isn't writing or is staring off into space, then time to change your style less your argument go into a black hole. Do you argue a lot with your opponent during CX? Watch your Judge's facial expressions to see if that style is winning you Speaks: some don't mind it and some will give you a visual clue that you need to be less aggressive to win his/her affections, so to speak.Rather than spending time pref'ing Judges like the ultimate sports fantasy league, practice these skills that are necessary for dealing with the real real world, and no matter where the Wheel Of Fortune stops and smiles upon you in your next round, you'll have skills to smile back.

  • Rebar Niemi

    i want to preface this by saying I agree in large part that students should learn multiple styles and learn beyond their established expertise but that ultimately i find having MJP to be preferable to not having it.i think your complaint isn't unique to MJP, and MJP isn't the reason that this "wink wink" and intellectually passive state of affairs exist. in fact, your primary counterclaim that MJP is anti-thetical to involvement in real life/real world concerns is in my opinion really not true – your examples bear this out: -college students take the classes they want, with the professors they want, specializing in what they want. most schools encourage specialization in certain fields (majors) and even distinguish between degree types – all at the choice of students-the classic libertarian argument is "don't like your boss – get a new job with a new boss." granted, i think is arg is hella flawed. but nonetheless in the real world people are given the choice of bosses unless you are a NCAA athlete or professional athlete (slavery is against teh law xcept in college sports)-in the real world, people select down friends/communities based on their personal preferences. I would agree this is a problem, but your point that MJP is not adequate training for this is false. MJP teaches people to maintain uncritical and biased stances without being forced to encounter opposition – the same is the guiding principle of american business and politics, and arguably is the major behavioral paradigm of all human interaction. you claim that you're against homogeneity, but seem to be implicitly arguing that there is one proper way to do things – i.e. the ideal debate community would be homogenous, but just homogenous *in the appropriate way*. i think the problem you really want to be addressing is people's entitlement to being right, which drives misuse and abuse of MJP as well as a general lack of communitas. the stance that MJP is bad because "THESE CHILLUNS AND THEIR COACHES DON'T N'VER LEARN DAT THEY B WRONG" really reinforces the notion that there are "right positions" and "experts" who are right and all of the rest of us should be listening to us. this in turn supports an entitlement to being right. to be honest, my primary use for MJP is avoiding judges who believe that they are right and others are wrong: these are the people who are the worst educators and in my opinion ultimately the most harmful to education; because these are the adults (or children with adult responsibilities and appearances) that teach students it is perfectly acceptable to exclude other people's points of view and maintain their own ideology as static and superior.i completely agree that our current situation is nothing but incest and exclusion. i very firmly disagree that the solution is lose MJP. my reasoning is 3fold:::::1. even with MJP, you still have to debate in front of people you don't like, often. it's not PERSONAL judge preferencing, it's MUTUAL judge preferencing. i think you tend to see the homogenous and intellectually uncurious debate because educators in the community incentivize it; not because MJP incentivizes it. 2. more rounds for actually unqualified judges are inevitable in a world without MJP. i'm not talking about mrs. weiss or mr. thorsen, i'm talking about people like the judges my students got at the Washington state tournament, who judged semifinals of LD and stated before the round that they "had not ever seen a round of this event." getting these judges is not an educational opportunity to learn to confront opposing points of view – it's a verbal game of blindfolded darts that leaves students disappointed, frustrated, and feeling cheated out of legitimate competitive and educational experiences. especially at larger and supposedly more prestigious tournaments. granted, the world would be better if everyone learned to convince tea ravers, but wasting time learning how to manipulate the very biased or less educated judges is a drain on the overall level of debate. i see this harm as larger to education than MJP. 3. college has even more rigorous preferencing systems than HS, and maintains a far more diverse field of argumentation. i would say that the entitlement to be right feeds directly into the problem we're having in HS – younger students learn that only some people are right, and that if they want any chance at being right, they must conform. college debate teaches you that there are parallel or perpendicular but separate ways of thinking – and that there's no reason to exclude an argument when you can just beat it if it is so "WRONG"Mr. Thorsen's narrative spoke deeply to me, particularly the part about caring for the community and each other regardless of ideological bent. the biggest poison we introduce into young minds is that you are always entitled to win, always entitled to be right, always entitled to step on the weaker on your path to being stronger. MJP has nothing to do with this. good coaching teaches you that the game is an end in itself, that losing is part of winning and not to be hated, that hard work and enthusiasm are more important than being the best, and NOT TO BE A GODDAMN CRYBABY LIKE EVERYONE TODAY.WAH 8 ROUNDSWAH BREAKING 5-3SWAH RUNOFFWAH THEORYWAH NO THEORYWAH SKEPWAH CRITIQUES WAH WAH WAH WAHWAH I HAD TO DEBATE SUM1 WHAT COULD BEAT MEWAH I LOSTWAH WAH WAH WAH anyway, not saying you're a crybaby babb – just piling on to your point that peeps today be weak sauce and all y'all need to grow up and teach your kids to stop being such brats and punx, and start stepping up and show each other and this gorgeous activity some love.

    • -Of course there's some choice in taking classes or choosing careers, but it's almost never absolute. Degree plans typically entail required courses, and just changing jobs isn't an option for the vast majority (at least realistically).-In terms of homogeneity, note that I'm not advocating tournaments *never* use MJPsimply that it not be quite such a widespread norm. Additionally, a world without MJP isn't one in which everyone does things the same way. The same judges will still be in the pool… the same styles and argumentative tendencies will still be at work. There will simply beas there once wasan increased likelihood of "cross-pollination" if you will. Also, I still think there's a place for strikes (perhaps even *more* strikes in a world without MJP)… I don't believe students should be put through torture or consistently forced to debate in front of judges who are truly problematic by any metric (of course they exist, at the Washington tourney you mentioned at even at some national tournaments).-I don't disagree *at all* with your claim that a number of judges abuse their duties and take a childishly dogmatic approach to some issues. I think a world with less MJP is one that also frankly should *strongly* encourage judges to reassess the absolutism they bring into a round. I think adaptation is a two-way street, and that judges and students alike should often attempt to meet somewhere in the middle when possible (especially with regard to some stylistic issues). And to clear, I think many judges are just as guilty as polarizing the community as anyone else. But, when taking stock of the things going wrong at the moment, I don't think those judges are having as great an impact as the increasing unwillingness to really judge at all.I think judges can be honest and rigorous about their expectations while remaining open-minded about students coming from different perspectives. Ultimately, I think that's where we want to be (or close to it at least).I think I agree with your assessment of the entitlement/crybaby phenomena 100%. I'd add that I think there's a difference between judges having unmet expectations vis-a-vis sound debate practices and judges simply hating whatever they don't understand. If a judge isn't familiar with something, they need to be open and up front about it.. and the debaters should probably adapt accordingly. It's not fair, though, for judges to unpredictable punish debaters for going in a direction the judge is uncomfortable with due to inexperience, etc.Still, my point is that more and more… judges are just swallowing whatever they're told even (if not especially) when it's an absolute mockery of sound argumentation. I don't have an especially narrow view of what "works" or doesn't work in debate, but I think there are certainly practices that are better than others and that we're doing debaters a disservice when we don't bring those things to their attention. It doesn't have to an antagonistic gesture I don't think.I know that those cultural dynamics will remain irrespective of MJP policy, but I still think there are some advantages to randomizing the process a bit, at least at some tournaments.

  • Stephen (wow, that doesnt feel right). Babb, how are you doing? As a now, very fringe member of the Lincoln Douglas community, I am very grateful to the many educators (some that I recognize from five years ago and many new faces) that continue a craft that gave me many blessings. It is also rare that any article would cause me to write a comment (outside of thanking my coaches I rarely, if ever posted on Victory Briefs). But, the resonance of your article really struck a cord with me. My intent is to share my experience with the community and hopefully allow it to inform the discourse around the pedagogical value of debate and mutual judge preferences; in other words, I am still a sucker for a good old narrative. This narrative is also in many ways a thank you to the people who helped me (and thus a somewhat a public and self indulgent thank you note).When I debated MJP was used along the old (aka circa 2006) ideological fault lines of persuasion versus speed with a little bit of theory thrown in for good measure. Since I graduated, I have tried to attend two tournaments a year, mostly to see old friends and see the state of the activity that gave me so much knowledge and I think, truly contributed to making me a better person than I would be if I continued down my path of being an offensive lineman.I was known as a persuasion debater, but experienced a fair amount of success on the circuit. As a freshman I did well and got to go to my first national tournament (the Harvard Invitational) and outrageously outperformed at the State Tournament before being put in my place by Julie Bills. The summer prior to my sophomore year I went to both VBI and NDF and learned more about debate and the circuit style (special thanks to Clayton Keir, Alex McCobin, Josh Anderson, Anjan Choudhury, Jon Cruz, Anthony Berryhill, Ari Parker, Tom Brugato, Douglas Jeffers, Jacob Levi, Joe Vaughan, Kendra Oyer, Rick Brundage, Tara Tedrow, Dan Meyers, Michael Mangus, Sarah (Smith) Rothenberg, Tim Hogan, Tim Case, Babb and so many others who helped me grow each summer). When my sophomore year began I attended Wake Forest in JV and knew I was going to winI did not break and I remember tearfully calling my parents, saying that I was going to quit.Coaches, family, and friends (specifically Josh Marshall, Ryan OHara, Pat Fitch, Harriet Levett, and George Clemens) counseled me against this decision I kept competing, continuing to suffer defeats, but continuing to learn until my sophomore year at the Crestian tournament, where I made a deep run with fellow teammates Brent Bielski and Mike Holzer. Then junior year happened and I finally got my first bid and Glennbrooks beating some people I probably shouldnt have beat (sorry Liz Scoggin, those multiple counter plans were kind of bullshit) and then getting utterly crushed by Corbin Cass (Eric Palmer gave the best RFD, syllogism, really?).After that round, I realized two critical things. Nothing, I repeat nothing you do in a community so tightly knit at the L.D. community occurs in a vacuum and I had to adapt to my audience. Once the light went off (sorry for the clichd metaphor) I went on to lose lots of rounds and win a few. These insights led me realize that to truly be successful, you had to care about your audience and your opponents. During my senior year I went on to be crushed by the likes of J-Kwan, Patrick Diehl, Melissa Patel, Johanna Tyler, Elyse Lyons Kelsey Avrill, Wade Houston, Mira Chernick, Claire Totten, Mike Spirtos, Nick Tourville, Patrick Mahoney, Ross Brown, and countless others before ending my L.D. career by having Ali Huberlie beat me in the octo-finals at T.O.C.s. Each win and loss helped me learn that L.D. and, in many ways, life is a subjective activity that will provide you victories you do not expect and losses that you feel you do not deserve. It is in handling those outcomes that you truly grow as a person.For me, the take away is that you have to care about the community not only to win rounds but also to be a better person. If there is a tool (and I am not sure if MJP falls into this category) that leads to fragmentation and inspires debaters to turn inward rather than focusing on the other, then that tool robs future debaters of the greatest lesson I learned from debate.I hope in some way this response performatively solves for the neglected friendships that I have and an invitation to other debaters to rekindle the relationships that helped them navigate high school. To that end, I will conclude my narrative with my fondest L.D. memory. I decided senior year that I was not going to compete in L.D. at Harvard, but it was our teams senior sendoff. So, I wrote an oratory. During my final round, I was fortunate enough to look out at an audience of L.D.ers who had my back and laughed at all my silly fat jokes.The greatest lesson that I learned from L.D. is care about your audience, both in round and outside of it, because then your audience becomes more than that, they become your friends.Please feel free to strike me if you see my name on the MJP sheet because, even if I stew in the judges lounge, Ill keep coming back because I am so thankful for the opportunities, friendships and knowledge this community has given me.

    • J.r., thanks for this. It's always nice to hear the perspectives of debaters who've had the opportunity to reflect and taken full advantage of it. I will certainly share these thoughts with students at camp this summerthere's a lot they can take away from them.Hope you're doing great, and I hope you continue to keep a foot in the debate world, even if it that means dropping by a tournament or two every year.

    • Just…Bravo!

  • Anonymous

    It is a curious practice… One of the sad corrolaries of which is that coaches who are more than a few years off the circuit, and who are not as familiar with the secret handshakes (I believe you refered to them as the wink-wink), lose credibility often, and yet they so often have the most experience, and could offer such excellent insight…Sad. This is a big turn off for me about LD. I'd like to see the trend move back to where I don't have to look for something to do while I'm chaperoning my kids. Here I am with a B.A. from Smith College, a Master's in English, and 16 years of pedagogy under my belt but I'm stuck in the judge's lounge trying not to reach for a second bagel. Oh wait! I can go judge pofo.

    • LOLthank God for pofo, huh?It’s funny, because I remember when I debated I would have given an arm and a leg to have *any* kind of additional control over my judging. Even when I was more actively involved in coaching, I typically felt the same way. When your primary involvement with the activity is its competitive dimensions that tends to happen.

      But, I think some additional perspective can go a long way. In my view, there’s something incredibly valuable about the opportunity for students to receive feedback from first-year outs and experienced coaches alike. They each bring a set of opinions that can positively impact debaters.